Roving thoughts and provocations

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How to Find the Best of Lange

Hopi man, 1920s; photograph by Dorothea Lange (Oakland Museum of California)

Some visual footnotes to my piece on Dorothea Lange in the new issue of The New York Review. I wrote about her work for the Farm Security Administration and her famous photograph Migrant Mother, and also discussed other areas of her work that may be less well known to readers, including this portrait of a Hopi man, which appears in Linda Gordon’s new biography of Lange.

Two earlier stages of this striking death-mask-like portrait—which might as well have borne the title The Last of His Race, or, as Edward S. Curtis called one of his best-known photographs, The Vanishing Race—can be seen in the comprehensive online archive of Lange’s photographs at the Oakland Museum of California. A warning about the archive: each picture is a black-and-white transparency made by setting the original negative against a light source. To call the results of this process “low-def” is to flatter them, and anyone who explores the archive will find that a lot of patience is required to navigate from one image to the next.

That said, here are the different stages of the portrait: first, the head-and-shoulders version, showing a merry, necklaced fellow with whom Lange had evidently established some rapport; then a close-up of his face, heavily shadowed, but still full of expression; then the final print, pictured above.

Since half of twentieth-century photography seems to have consisted of men objectifying young women as sex symbols, it’s tempting to see this portrait as a counterexample: a female photographer objectifying a male subject as a race symbol, which is surely what the Hopi man has become.

In my essay, I also discussed Lange’s photographs of her Irish pastoral idyll, which she made on assignment for Life magazine in 1954. I relied on the Oakland Museum’s collection of nearly 2,500 images from that trip.

The photographs were published in the March 21, 1955, issue of Life, which has been digitized by Google Books. Lange’s photo-essay (note the scant acknowledgment of her role at the bottom of the first page) starts on page 135. One can skip directly to her piece by entering 135 in the page box and clicking Enter, though to scroll one’s way slowly through the magazine is to visit an enchanted world, where, among many other marvels, advertising revenue grows on trees.

Nearly four thousand of Lange’s photographs for the FSA, including Migrant Mother, are at the Library of Congress, whose archive can be searched here. See also Errol Morris’s recent discussion of Migrant Mother and other FSA photographs on his New York Times blog.

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